Special effects makeup in horror movies: What it takes to create the goriest (and grossest) scenes
The gorier the better
With Halloween approaching steadily, horror movie marathons are well underway. Arguably, one of the best and often overlooked aspects of horror as a genre is how a little special effects makeup can bring the genres most iconic characters and scenes to life. While SFX in the film industry have come a long way since its conception, mainly with the introduction of CGI, practical special effects are still in use to this day. This is a review of some of the most impressive moments in horror SFX makeup.
Blood is, predictably, a necessity in the horror movie industry. Consider the iconic shower scene from Psycho featuring Janet Leigh being brutally stabbed to death, for example. The chilling scene is forever ingrained as a staple of cinematic history. What may surprise you is that, in lieu of fake blood, Hitchcock favoured watered-down Hershey’s chocolate syrup which was impressively effective in the black and white film. Since then, as expected, the industry’s standard recipe has been developed further.
‘Kensington Gore’ is the commonplace stage name for fake blood in the film industry, first pioneered by John Tinegate in the ’70s. The recipe varies, but a common one is surprisingly achievable (and edible); a mixture of corn or golden syrup, cornflour and food dye gives it the right colour and viscosity. In fact, you will likely recognise this sticky concoction in horror staples like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the original Carrie and, of course, the original Evil Dead.
Paint me pretty
Further, special effects makeup is the backbone of films such as The Grudge (2002), which transforms actress Takako Fuji into the vengeful spirit of Kayako Saeki that wreaks havoc on anyone who encounters the site of her brutal murder. The transformation is achieved by little more than white face and body paint, heavy black pigment around the eyes and the occasional spot of fake blood, yet somehow leaves Fuji unrecognisable.
This particular look is pretty much the standard for the 'vengeful spirit of a woman who was wronged during her life' character, a prevalent but effective horror trope seen in other films like the 2004 Thai supernatural horror film Shutter and the 2002 Japanese horror Dark Water.
Fake it till you make it
Films like The Ring (2002) and its many reiterations take the same trope to the next level, turning the scare factor up using elaborate prosthetics in addition to body paint as detailed in the video here. Creating the franchise’s central antagonist Samara Morgan takes a jaw-dropping seven hours, not including the pre-production process involving taking casts of the actress and making the prosthetics in the first place.
Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Pennywise from the IT franchise revival is yet another terrifying horror villain, sending viewers reeling from the cinema. The practical effects artists behind the character’s distinctive look, Alec Giles and Tom Woodruff Jr, detailed their process in the video above. The process of creating the look is similar to that of The Ring; an elaborate set of prosthetics tailored to Skarsgård’s face along with a custom hand-made wig and dentures transforms the actor into his nightmarish counterpart.
These prosthetic pieces are typically made of foam latex which allows for greater flexibility when compared to full masks, allowing actors a larger range of facial expression. Its inception by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead) has paved the way for special effects makeup industry, with his techniques still incorporated by makeup artists today. Yes, it is a cripplingly labour-intensive process but somehow it doesn’t stop there.
Guts, gore and more
The wonders of prosthetics have been reinvented time and time again, with more elaborate and sophisticated technological developments. An incredible example of how far prosthetics have come is Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror nightmare Midsommar, a film in which an idyllic retreat to Sweden quickly finds a group of friends at the mercy of a pagan cult. The film is, at times, horrifically graphic with its gore, meaning it also has some of the most convincing and advanced special effects.
Take the Ättestupa scene, which depicts a pair of elder cult members performing a ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff (spoiler alert: they die). The incredibly convincing and grotesque special effects were largely achieved through using prosthetics and hyper-realistic dummies as devised by the film’s makeup designer, Iván Pohárnok, who is a protegee of the aforementioned Dick Smith. For the sake of realism, Pohárnok cast moulds of the actors' faces and bodies to make the rubber dummies which he then mangled accordingly.
However, the way the scene was filmed involved close-ups which meant that the dummies had to be exact to their corresponding actors. In order to achieve this, a meticulous paint job and painstaking addition of finer details like eyebrows, hair and eyelashes were required.
Finally, one of the elders is shown to initially survive the fall, calling for the cult to—for lack of better description—brutally crush his head under a mallet to kill him. For Pohárnok and his team, the last obstacle was creating a dummy that would be able to be reused for multiple takes, so they added an ingenious piece of machinery that allowed the head to go from smashed to ‘un-smashed’ for multiple takes.
The rather nifty device would squirt fake blood during takes, and then (with the push of a button) air controlled cylinders within the prosthetic would implode the prosthetic head from the inside to inflate it, returning the head to its normal shape. This allowed the head to be crushed during takes as well as uncrushed for retakes. Equal parts horrific and cool!
So, that just about scratches the surface of the wonders of SFX makeup in old and new horror flicks—now what is your favourite SFX makeup moment?